How to Report a Sexual Assault: A Guide for Canadian Students
This is a guide on the options available to report a sexual assault, should you find yourself a victim.
A nationwide student survey has found that Canadian universities average a C- in how their policies deal with sexual violence on campus.
The survey was conducted by a student-led organization called Our-Turn. Their full action plan is available here.
Last year, Now Toronto posted a jarring piece outlining how universities across Canada silence and abandon victims of sexual assault.
**Caution/Advisory: this article contains possibly triggering content. If you need immediate help please call 911.
Statistics surrounding sexual assault in this country are hard to find. Canada’s informational site looks like a computer project circa 2001—compared to America’s sexual assault resource site, RAINN. Statistics are often problematic when they are found.
…victims are still largely overlooked by the justice system in Canada. As a result, rape is the most under-reported crime in the country…
A Canadian Centre for Justice survey reported that police data showed remarkably less incidents of sexual assault than victimization surveys. The reasons behind this are numerous and complex. But the overarching reason is that victims are still largely overlooked by the justice system in Canada. As a result, rape is the most under-reported crime in the country. Earlier this year, the Alberta government revealed it is only just about to adopt standardized protocol for sexual assault in its law enforcement. No other province has their own protocol.
[Baby steps have been taken in other areas. The Sexual Violence and Harassment Plan Act – Bill 132 – was passed in 2016. It mandates standalone-policies regarding sexual assault in workplaces and educational institutions.]
Politics and semantics aside, the reality is that for too many students, sexual assault will be a part of their university experience. And when you find yourself abruptly thrown into such murky waters, it’s difficult (if not impossible) to know what to do next.
The following is intended to hypothetically guide you through the options available, as well as inform about the realities of reporting sexual assault, should you find yourself a victim.
If you have been assaulted: I am truly, deeply sorry that this has happened to you. Know that you are not alone, others love you, and that whatever happened, it wasn’t your fault.
First and foremost: your safety is priority.
If you are in immediate danger, get help: call 911, or go to your nearest hospital/police station/campus security post.
Experiencing sexual trauma is just that—traumatic. There is no right or wrong way to feel or behave afterward. Your experience and your feelings are all completely valid.
If you feel ready, you might begin to consider the various paths available.
These paths are:
. Seeking Medical Care.
. Reporting to Police.
. Seeking Emotional Support.
. Talking to Media.
You might choose one, or two, or none of these. It is completely and totally your choice. And no choice is wrong.
Seeking Medical Care.
Ideally, a person should receive medical care directly after the assault – within 72 hours at the most. It’s advised not to change your clothing or shower, even though this can be very tempting.
Receiving medical attention after a sexual assault can be daunting. Especially if you’re not sure whether you want to report or not. However there are many important reasons to see a doctor after an assault. Professionals can guide you through concerns such as transmitting diseases or becoming pregnant.
Do you have to report to the police if you receive an examination?
You can receive an examination without reporting to police. Doctors cannot release any information without your consent, so nobody has to know you visited one. Should the assailant be charged, even a doctor’s visit can be used as evidence in a future trial.
Areas with higher populations have sexual assault response teams or care centres. These house staff who are specially trained in sexual assault and trauma, and who are equipped to support you through this. Unfortunately, services are notoriously difficult to access in rural areas.
Receiving a Rape Kit
Receiving medical attention for injuries sustained during an assault is not the same thing as having a rape kit taken. In the former, criminal evidence won’t be collected or recorded. A rape kit collects evidence, and is only taken if you choose to report to law enforcement.
Rape kits – or Sexual Assault Evidence Kits – are forensic exams where evidence is collected from the victim’s body and clothing at victims’ expense.
In 2015, the National Post exposed the antiquated and invasive protocol outlined in the RCMP-sanctioned rape kits. These are delivered to every hospital in the country. Many survivors undergo painful exams within hours of experiencing their trauma. The most rural populations have no access to rape kits at all.
Rape kits typically involve forms for the physician, and swabs and bags to collect evidence such as hairs or body fluid. Blood or urine samples will also be taken, along with photographic evidence, depending on the crime. Throughout this process, the doctor will be informing you of each step that’s happening and asking for your permission to proceed.
Can you ask a friend or family member to come with you?
You are allowed to ask a friend, family member, or a sexual assault support worker to accompany you throughout a rape kit or any examination you receive. Support workers can be provided by the hospital. Depending on the area, male victim or LGBTQ+ liaisons may be available.
In the U.S., anyone is allowed to take a rape kit anonymously and have it kept on file until/if they decide to report; unfortunately, no such law exists in Canada. Victims are allowed to receive medical care without reporting to police; however in Canada, in order for forensic evidence to be collected, a report must be made.
A more in-depth look at the medical examination process can be found on BC Women’s website, though protocol may vary slightly by province and territory.
If you haven’t reported but are receiving medical attention, and wish to have a rape kit taken, it’s at this time that a local police officer would be called to take a report. You cannot give a rape kit and not report; however, you can report and not have a rape kit taken.
Male and LGBTQ+ survivors
For male and LGBTQ+ survivors, discrimination surrounding their identities is a common roadblock in reporting an assault to the police, seeking medical care, or talking to counsellors.
Fear of disbelief and/or ridicule makes reporting to police incredibly difficult for males as well as women-love-women survivors (anyone wishing to conduct online research regarding rape between women should be prepared to wade through countless links to porn sites—proof of just how much work we have ahead of us as a society).
Seeking medical care can be doubly distressing for trans, two-spirit, or non-binary survivors. (Though my research was extensive, I struggle to come up with concrete resources for non-cis victims wishing to undergo the rape kit process. In one devastating article from the states, a survivor claims that rape kits can’t be taken by anyone without a vagina, which is problematic to say the least. No evidence of such limitations seems to be in place in Canada, but any protocol involving specifically male or non-cis survivors is non-existent, too.)
Your campus Pride centre can be a source of support; some centres might be able to connect you with a gay, bi, or trans community liaison. These liaisons can accompany you to the hospital, and can help you communicate with law enforcement.
Reporting to Police.
& Our Laws Regarding Rape
Unfortunately, we live in a society which harbours a rape culture (the normalization of sexual violence; standardization of male sexual aggression; victimization of feminine bodies, etc). This culture pins the blame on the victim: what they were wearing or drinking, where they were walking, who they were hanging with, etc. It blames the victim if they want to stop sexual activity after things become violent/they just aren’t feeling it anymore, and the assailant continues.
There is a wave of consent activism right now, because this thinking is wrong.
And then, there is the horrific issue of dubious/blurred consent: the stories of “I said no but he/she kept going, so I went along with it”; “He/she pressured me in this or that way”. There is a wave of consent activism right now, because this thinking is wrong. Coercive sex is rape; it’s still traumatic, and unequivocally wrong to inflict on a person.
What constitutes sexual assault?
Unfortunately, our laws are far behind our activism. According to SexualAssault.ca, there is no specific rape provision in Canada’s criminal code. This means there is actually no legal definition of rape in Canada.
A limited provision regarding sexual assault:
“265 (1) A person commits an assault when
(a) without the consent of another person, he applies force intentionally to that other person, directly or indirectly;
(b) he attempts or threatens, by an act or a gesture, to apply force to another person, if he has, or causes that other person to believe on reasonable grounds that he has, present ability to effect his purpose; or
(c) while openly wearing or carrying a weapon or an imitation thereof, he accosts or impedes another person or begs.
(2) This section applies to all forms of assault, including sexual assault, sexual assault with a weapon, threats to a third party or causing bodily harm and aggravated sexual assault.”
As well as a provision on consent:
“266 (3) For the purposes of this section, no consent is obtained where the complainant submits or does not resist by reason of
(a) the application of force to the complainant or to a person other than the complainant;
(b) threats or fear of the application of force to the complainant or to a person other than the complainant;
(c) fraud; or
(d) the exercise of authority.”
Understandably, there are plenty of reasons a person may be nervous about reporting. From fear of being blamed or judged, to having no faith in our justice system. This Globe & Mail piece explores the outcomes of 36 different survivors reporting to police and only three had “positive” experiences.
What happens when you report?
An initial report typically involves the officer asking you questions. They may ask you to write a statement of the event. Police ask you to have a rape kit taken at your nearest hospital/medical centre at this time.
Your local police will have a victim services unit who can connect you with other resources, such as counselling.
You can choose to not have a rape kit taken at all, which is completely okay; just know that you may be sacrificing evidence. Your local police will have a victim services unit who can connect you with other resources, such as counselling.
This guide published by the Toronto police aims to bridge the gap between police officers and the trans community; it offers information for trans people regarding reporting a crime, testifying in court, and navigating the sexual assault investigation process as a trans person. It also states that LGBTQ+ people can ask for an LGBTQ+ community liaison when dealing with law enforcement.
An initial report is made. Officers are assigned to investigate the case. If the assailant was known to you, the case will be given to the division where the assault took place. If the assailant was a stranger, the case will be assigned to sex crimes.
Investigators will keep you up to date about case status, bail conditions, court dates, and final sentencing. They will also keep you connected with victim services.
It is upon investigation that the police will decide whether to lay charges or not. The assailant is arrested and tried, if charged. They become “the accused.” However, the police can choose not to charge the assailant; this usually means there is not enough evidence.
What happens if the police lay charges?
Most sexual assault cases will have a preliminary hearing. This is a pre-trial. The case goes to trail if the courts determine there is enough evidence. More information about the evidence used in sexual assault trials can be found here.
The accused makes multiple court appearances throughout this time, and may be let out on bail. Sometimes, a condition of bail will be a No-Contact Order but not always. The victim only has to appear at the preliminary hearing, and the criminal trial.
Depending on the case, this process can take a few months to a couple of years.
More information on this process can be found here.
If the assault didn’t happen on campus but with a fellow student, your university may contest that the crime is out of their jurisdiction.
Reporting to your campus authorities (department heads or security) is an option. However, they have limited jurisdiction and power. For example, if the assailant drops out, transfers, or graduates after you report a sexual assault to your university, the case is no longer in the university’s power. The school is forced to drop it.
Even if the assault happened on campus: your local police will have jurisdiction over campus security. If the assault didn’t happen on campus but with a fellow student, your university may contest that the crime is out of their jurisdiction.
Trauma alters your brain. When experiencing a sexual assault, one enters a state of ‘survival mode’ that doesn’t quite turn off even after the event is over; the trauma then remains unprocessed in the mind. For most, it resurfaces when “triggered” and manifests typically through panic attacks and flashbacks, among other symptoms. There is no going back to who you were before it happened; there is only integrating who it has made you now.
This is a difficult road to travel, to say the least. Friends and family may be struggling with how to support you.
A trained, objective party like a psychiatrist validating your experiences, while guiding you through the difficult emotions and sensations they bring up, can be extremely helpful.
Therapy acts as a support system. A trained, objective party like a psychiatrist validating your experiences, while guiding you through the difficult emotions and sensations they bring up, can be extremely helpful.
Do you have to pay for Mental Health services?
The world of mental health care is not perfect. In Canada, costs for mental health care come out of the patient’s pocket. Most provincial and territorial health care systems don’t cover psychiatrists or therapists. Check with your insurance or benefits provider about the options available to you, or visit CMHA’s site for more info.
Most universities have a mental health centre for students where support groups and counsellors will be available with no or minimal charge.
By law, a therapist or counsellor can only break this confidentiality agreement if they truly believe you are a danger to yourself or others.
When talking with a therapist about your assault, everything you say is completely and totally confidential. By law, a therapist or counsellor can only break this confidentiality agreement if they truly believe you are a danger to yourself or others. For more information about your rights when seeing a therapist, click here.
There are other options to face-to-face therapy. Apps such as Seven Cups or the Crisis Text Line offer anonymous chatting with counsellors via text and direct messaging, and are absolutely free. Crisis hotlines have been operating for years, and are also a valid option for support.
Find more outreach services for victims with these groups:
. Hope 247 (includes resources for LGBTQ+; male survivors)
. Dawn Canada (includes resources for disabled women; indigenous women)
. Sexual Assault Survivor’s Support Line & Leadership (includes resources for transgender, two-spirit and non-binary survivors)
. 1 in 6 (for male survivors)
It’s important that you find at least one source of support. This could be a trustworthy friend or a companion animal. Your community may also have support groups, or art therapy groups available on a drop-in or anonymous basis.
Maybe you just want to curl up in a blanket burrito and try the “talking-about-it in therapy” thing later.
Regardless of how, you deserve to heal. Go at the pace that makes sense for you.
Talking To Media/Going Public.
Our society is in the midst of a sexual awakening. If the “love movement” of the sixties fought for our right to have casual, freeing sex, then this century’s movement is fighting for our right to say “no.”
Getting your story out there can be validating. And if police, medical care providers, or university alumni mishandled your trauma, then call them out publicly. Mass media coverage is part of what is waking the world up to the epidemic of sexual assault, especially in regard to the sexual climate at university campuses (read stories here, here and here).
If you take this road, don’t let anyone feel like you should remain silent.
There are notable negative consequences to speaking to the press: your name will be in the media and you will not be able to control who knows what. But for some, speaking up can turn out to be a part of the healing. Talking with the local newspaper, a campus zine, or posting something on a blog or website can be incredibly validating, and offer closure. If you take this road, don’t let anyone feel like you should remain silent.
The Bottom Line:
Sexual assault is a traumatic, life-altering crime that nobody should ever have to experience. There is no perfect formula. How you feel is never wrong, and how you handle your trauma is never wrong.*Opinions expressed are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Student Life Network or their partners.